Douglas Lute, a lieutenant general in the U.S. Army, served as Washington's permanent representative to NATO from 2013 to 2017. In an interview with RFE/RL's Georgian Service, he discusses Georgia and NATO after the military's alliance's key summit in Madrid and argues that Ukraine is getting the right kind of weapons from the West, just not enough of them.
RFE/RL: What are the takeaways from the recent NATO summit in Madrid? What's going to change?
Douglas Lute: Well, I believe for every NATO summit there's really only one essential deliverable or outcome -- and that outcome is cohesion, solidarity. I think that this summit certainly achieved that, especially in the face of the most severe security challenge in Europe, arguably since 2014, the last invasion of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin of Ukraine, but perhaps even going back much further than that, past the Balkan wars, and perhaps all the way back to World War II.
So, arguably, this armed conflict in Europe has presented NATO with what might be referred to as a strategic inflection point -- that is, one of these points in history that only occurs perhaps every 10 or even 20 years, after which the impact is felt for 10 or 20 years thereafter. So a very key point in European history.
RFE/RL: The new strategic concept that was adopted at the NATO summit names Russia as the top threat to the alliance's security. Does that mean that the habitual "resets" with Russia will be a thing of the past?
Lute: For the foreseeable future, there's no reset on the horizon. I can't imagine it. This is probably the darkest period in NATO-Russian relations, certainly since the end of the Cold War but going back well before that. Perhaps in U.S.-Russia relations it's the darkest period since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
This is a historic change. It's important to remember that when we're in the midst of a historic change, it is sometimes difficult for us to perceive it. We don't realize that we're at a historical turning point. But I believe as time goes on, this invasion of Ukraine will be [seen as] just such a critical historic turning point.
RFE/RL: Let me ask you about Sweden and Finland's NATO applications. There was no mention of Membership Action Plans (MAP), the individualized preparation programs for each country joining NATO. The MAP is something that has been the subject of so much debate in Ukraine and Georgia: Can we join NATO without a MAP? Can the process be expedited? And now we see that a MAP is actually not needed. So what does that tell Kyiv and Tbilisi?
Lute: Well, I think it reflects the military capabilities of these two new applicants, Sweden and Finland, but also the maturity of their democracies, their democratic processes. [Because of that] the alliance will not likely put them into a MAP-like process…. In the case of Sweden and Finland, a MAP is likely to be judged by the NATO staff as unnecessary because of the degree to which both the military and political systems are so mature and so proven that they need not go through it.
RFE/RL: So this precedent in no way makes the obstacles or conditions of the MAPs for Ukraine and Georgia disappear?
Lute: No, [it doesn't make them disappear]. Each candidate is judged on its own value and not compared to anyone else.
RFE/RL: With Putin's invasion of Ukraine, we also saw how concerned Sweden and Finland have become and that's probably what prompted them to apply for NATO membership. So where does it leave Georgia, the former beacon of democracy in the South Caucasus, as it was once called? How concerned should Georgians be?
Lute: Well, of course, Georgia has got close experience with its biggest neighbor, Russia. 2008 proved this. To this day, [the breakaway territories] of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia are occupied by a foreign power. So no country in Europe, aside from perhaps Ukraine, knows this as well as the Georgian government and the Georgian people do.
It's quite clear now, with the invasion of Ukraine, that perhaps what should have been clear after 2008, or maybe what should have been clear after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014, is undeniably clear to every European state now. That is that Russia has not only the capability, the armed forces and so forth, the firepower to invade, but under President Putin, Russia has the intention, the will to advance. It's no longer an academic, theoretical question. It's no longer hypothetical.
[Putin] has demonstrated that he is a threat. That simple observation, the combination of capability and intent, is what pushed the Finnish and Swedish people to this national decision.
RFE/RL: We've seen a change in the rhetoric of the current Georgian government, because during your tenure, for example, leaders always underlined that the territorial disputes or territorial conflicts that Georgia has should not be an obstacle for it joining the military alliance. Now even the government claims that territorial disputes should be settled first and then we should become a member. Which approach do you think has more merit?
Lute: Here I go back to the [1949 founding] NATO treaty itself, which lays out, I think in Article 10, exactly what it takes to become a member. It boils down to three criteria.
I am hopeful that the Biden administration took from the NATO summit a clear message: that now is the time to do more."
First of all, a candidate must demonstrate the values of the alliance. This is democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law. So it's got to be a democracy. Second, it's got to be capable of contributing to NATO's collective defense -- not only able to achieve self-defense but to contribute to the whole. Third, and here's the sticking point, the applicant must be agreed among all the current members of the alliance. It has to be a consensus.
These are the three criteria that are actually in the treaty. This is not NATO policy, this is international law, because a treaty is a legally binding agreement. It's that third step that has proven a challenge, for Georgia, because we don't have a consensus…and likewise we don't have a consensus on Ukraine. So this is as much of a political challenge to gain that consensus as it is anything else.
RFE/RL: Let me ask you about Western aid to Ukraine. The United States has sent four HIMARS mobile rocket-launch systems, four more are on the way, and there's also talk about NASAMS air-defense systems coming from Norway. In total, from different countries, including Germany and the United Kingdom, Ukraine now has 25 equivalent assets. On the Russian side, they have hundreds, or even approaching thousands, of such equipment. How does it compare? Can we call the Western aid adequate?
Lute: No, we cannot. The language on Ukraine coming out of the NATO summit announced by [U.S.] President [Joe] Biden in the closing press conference was: "We will be with Ukraine for as long as it takes." I would have liked to have seen "as much as it takes, as long as it takes." Because this is not only a question of time, this is a question of the quality of the military assistance.
I'm concerned about the staying power of the West, to sustain the support to Ukraine, to sustain the sanctions [on Russia] in the face of domestic political pressure.These high-end systems, like the multiple-launch rocket systems and NASAMS air-defense systems, are the right quality of weapon systems. But [they are] not the right quantity and not in a timely fashion. There are three ingredients here: the right system, in the right numbers, [and] at the right time.
I'm concerned about the staying power of the West, to sustain the support to Ukraine, to sustain the sanctions [on Russia] in the face of domestic political pressure."
I think we're doing well on the first part, [but] we are not sufficient in terms of quantity. I would argue that if the U.S. provided four [multiple-launch rocket systems] and another four are en route, it should be 10 times that number. They're not getting there in time.
So while we're supplying weapons, Ukrainians are dying, and their country is being destroyed and their economy is being strangled. So I would like to see these systems [delivered] in much greater quantity, like an order of magnitude more, and much faster.
As decisions are being made to move a system into Ukraine, at the same time as the decision process is happening, we should be moving the equipment to Germany or Poland. We should be stockpiling the ammunition, waiting for the decision, and we should be training Ukrainians. So then, when the decision is made, all the pieces are already in place.
RFE/RL: Do you see happening what you just described: increased military assistance in quantity and in a timely fashion? How realistic is that?
Lute: First of all, the systems exist. The U.S. has hundreds of these [multiple-launch rocket systems]. Some allies have similar systems. The Brits and the Germans have equivalent systems, and I can't think of a better use of these systems today than putting them in the hands of the Ukrainian fighters.
But it's not a matter of their existence, it's a matter of expediting their delivery in sufficient quantities so that they can make a difference on the battlefield while the Ukrainians still have the capacity to resist. So I don't know. I am hopeful that the Biden administration took from the NATO summit a clear message: that now is the time to do more.
I am hopeful that we will move away from this small, incremental approach to one that errs on the side of quantity and speed. So we'll see.
RFE/RL: We saw the Kremenchuk shopping mall bombed by the Russians on June 27. Had this happened in March, it would have made bigger headlines. It was in the news but not everywhere. Is the West slowly becoming desensitized to the war in Ukraine?
Lute: So, I think that at the strategic level, this is a contest of staying power, of endurance. On President Putin's side, he's got to weigh the costs of the sanctions. This is a historic sanctions regime against Putin, his economy, and his military. So he's got to sustain the fight in the face of those sanctions. That's his problem. On our side, we've got to sustain support to Ukraine, and not only military support but humanitarian and economic support, to keep their economy alive.
So clearly, in Europe, many allied countries are facing energy consequences. The EU is taking some important decisions with regard to weaning itself off of Russian energy, but that's going to come at a political price. These are not cost-free measures. The world is paying a price in terms of the disruption of the food and agriculture supply chains. Both of these -- energy and food -- are contributing to inflation.
WATCH: The world needs Ukraine’s grain. As the war rages on, global wheat prices are skyrocketing, and there are fears that food insecurity could bring further unrest to countries that are already troubled.
Here in the United States, inflation is at a 40-year high. So in the face of those political pressures, we have a problem with endurance as well. The challenge here is that [ours is] a very different challenge to [Putin's]. Putin is an autocrat, a ruler of one. Our leaders have to be beholden, alert to, and sensitive to what's happening to their people. Because of that disparity, I'm concerned about the staying power of the West, to sustain the support to Ukraine, to sustain the sanctions [on Russia] in the face of domestic political pressure.
The good news is that the three [recent] summits (EU, NATO, and G7)…are a three-way reinforcement, a three-part message that says, so far, we are cohesive, we are solid, we are united. But it's going to take a major effort over the coming year and, I would say, for several years, to sustain that effort. And remember, it's harder for a democracy.